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Purpose and the Life Review

Purposeful people look to goals they seek to accomplish over the long haul.

Key points

  • Rather than dwelling on past problems, imagining a hopeful future can shape our development in more agentic and adaptive ways.
  • The capacity for looking forward with a life-fulfilling purpose requires looking backward in an open and receptive way.
  • A life review is for reconstructing the past in a manner that can provide personal benefits that many of us need.

As a helping profession, psychology from its inception has sought ways to counsel people for the challenges of coping with distress, self-discovery, and personal growth. Original stabs at solutions to such challenges focused on unresolved conflicts of the past. Sigmund Freud dredged the depths of patients’ memories to repair injuries that had never healed because they had been suppressed rather than recognized. The idea behind this reconstruction work: cleaning up a painful history could disinfect sores that were still hurting, perhaps even more intensely than at the time they were inflicted.

Psychology’s cognitive revolution in the latter half of the 20th century directed more attention to a person’s present mode of experiencing the world. Cognitive psychologists were uncomfortable with the idea that people are chained to their pasts and driven by events that they can’t even remember. The cognitive view of human nature is more active and more skill-based. If people can be encouraged to think about their lives in more rational, stable, and positive ways, they become better able to cope with problems and seize opportunities in the present. Embodied most notably in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), the cognitive approach has been reinforced by the spread of compatible spiritual ideas and practices from Eastern traditions. Meditation and various forms of yoga emphasize the value of “being present,” offering engaging methods of focusing the mind towards that end. For those with a bent towards classical philosophy in the Western tradition, CBT shares the Stoic belief in our power to define, control, and improve our experiences by building strong habits of mind and employing these habits to gain emotional stability in the present.

Ron Hyrons Shutterstock
Source: Ron Hyrons Shutterstock

Most recently, psychology’s focus has shifted to the influence of the future—or at least future aspirations—on identity and self-development. The theoretical foundations for this focus have been established by psychologist Martin Seligman’s writings on what he calls “prospective thinking.” By imagining hopeful future prospects we can shape our development in more agentic and adaptive ways than we could by dwelling on our past problems, and to a much more salutary effect.

My own writings on the development of purpose are most closely aligned with the notion of prospective thinking. Purpose, which I’ve defined as “an active commitment to accomplish aims that are meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self,” is future-oriented by nature. Purposeful people look ahead to goals they seek to accomplish over the long haul. The psychological benefits of purpose lie in strengths that forward-looking commitments bring: motivation, energy, achievement, hope, and resilience. Purpose is a prime example of how a person’s future aspirations can shape the person’s self-development. In every age period, I have studied, from adolescence to advanced age, purpose stands out as a key to positive living.

Still, the past does matter—especially how we think about the past. Faulkner was right when he wrote, “The past is not dead; it is not even past.” The capacity for looking forward, with renewed commitments to life-fulfilling purposes, requires looking backward in an open and receptive way.

This was brought home full force by a revelation late in my life that changed my understanding of how I came to be the person I am. Briefly, I discovered that my father – who I once assumed was killed or “missing” in World War II – had a substantial career abroad after he abandoned my mother and me. Most startlingly, I found that my mother, who never spoke with me about him, had arranged my early schooling in line with my father’s, an educational choice that turned my life in the direction it has taken. Not only did my discoveries shake up my sense of identity, it uncovered a host of regrets, resentments, and confusions that had long unsettled my emotional state.1

My own prior work on purpose development was not sufficient for the self-examination I felt compelled to carry out. For this, I adopted the personal narrative approach known as “the life review.” A life review is a structured procedure for reconstructing our pasts in a manner that can provide three personal benefits that many of us need as we grow older:

  1. An acceptance of the events and choices that have shaped our lives, reflecting gratitude for the life we’ve been given rather than self-doubt and regret
  2. A more authentic (and thus more robust) understanding of who we are and how we got to be that way, reflecting the highly developed, reassuring sense of self that psychologist Erik Erikson called “ego integrity”
  3. A greater clarity in the direction our lives should take going forward, reflecting what we have learned from the experiences and the purposes that have given our lives meaning in the past.

The “life review” method was pioneered by Robert Butler, a legendary psychiatrist who was concerned with the problem of increasing depression in aging patients. Butler believed that the depressive symptoms of his patients stemmed from the aimless way they remembered their pasts. He devised a procedure for helping people conduct “life reviews” that highlighted the key purposes they had pursued successfully in their prior stages of life. By finding positive benefits in all earlier experiences—even ones that appeared unfortunate at the time— people can affirm the values of their lives and chart a hopeful path forward.

Before he was able to fully develop this method, Butler moved on to a celebrated career in gerontology. He founded the National Institute of Aging and wrote a Pulitzer-Prize-winning book on successful aging. He never found the time to return to his innovative “life review” idea prior to his 2007 death. Late in his life, Butler wrote that he regretted this, because he believed the idea would prove useful for all people in the search for ways to live maximally meaningful lives—whether or not battling depression, and whether old or young.

Butler believed that reflective life reviews would promote “intellectual and personal growth, and wisdom” throughout the lifespan. Among the psychological benefits he noted were: the resolution of old conflicts; an optimistic view of one’s future; “a sense of serenity, pride in accomplishment;” a “feeling of having done one’s best;” a capacity to enjoy present pleasures such as humor, love, nature, and contemplation; and “a comfortable acceptance of the life cycle, the universe, and the generations.” This, of course, is a compelling list of the main pillars of psychological health.

In particular, my life review has two paradoxes regarding psychological development in the adult years of life:

  1. The capacity for looking forward in a positive way requires looking backward in an open, undefended, and honest way, with past memories structured by one’s present values and future aspirations.
  2. Autobiographical discovery deepens a person’s understanding of self while broadening the person’s knowledge of others who have influenced the formation of self, often in previously unknown ways.

The search for purpose never ceases. As we age, we entertain new aspirations and take on new commitments. In doing this, we draw on interests and capacities we developed earlier in life. The accomplishments of our early years can set the stage for a later life of meaning, fulfillment, and contributions to the common good. A life review can bring all of this into focus, accelerating the discovery of our “encore” purposes and affording new satisfaction as we look back at the driving forces of our earlier life.

Purpose is a lifelong need, as relevant as we age as when we are young. We may imagine it will be a straight line when we look forward as young people. But when we look back, we see it as more evolving, more meandering, and less predictable: our purposes change as we adapt to our changing circumstances and those of the world at large. A life review offers us a way to look back and connect the dots, starting with our first glimmers of purpose in adolescence. It can help us recall the purposes we’ve had in our lives, integrate them with our present circumstances, and envision opportunities for further purposeful work.

Our pasts do matter; and it is essential to attend to our present experience and our future aspirations as well. Each school of psychology has an essential point to make: past, present, and future all play a part in shaping a person’s perspectives on self. The message that we should take from psychology’s approaches is that all the times of our lives, from our remembered origins to our imagined futures, provide us with material for self-definition and potential growth. It is up to us to actively search through this material and integrate what we find into a coherent, authentic, and gratifying vision of who we have been, who we are, and who we aim to be.


1. I tell the full story of my discoveries and how I dealt with them psychologically in my new book “A Round of Golf with my Father: The New Psychology of Exploring Your Past to Make Peace with Your Present.”

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